STERLING, Va. – Politics is often a sleight-of-hand act designed to distract voters from their immediate concerns with the artful use of bright, shiny objects. These days, for example, beleaguered Democrats are trying every form of legerdemain ("Look at the crazy things my opponent has said") to divert attention from the flailing economy. But it seems baffling why congressional Republicans -- with most trends flowing in their direction -- so badly want to complicate the 2010 campaign season.
Watching 13 House Republicans all dressed for Casual Thursday unveil their "Pledge to America"
in a suburban lumberyard safely just outside the Washington Beltway, I was seized by an existential "Why are we here?" moment. Newt Gingrich, to his credit, had a sense of theatrics in 1994 when he grouped 300 incumbents and challengers on the steps of the Capitol to endorse the "Contract with America." But where is the poetry in an interior setting dominated by neatly stacked sheets of wood (the lumber -- not the politicians) and the distinct whiff of sawdust?
It would be one thing if the anti-tax, anti-big-government "Pledge to America" had been rolled out as the centerpiece of GOP efforts to win back the House. But the Republicans seemed almost embarrassed to raise something as crass as politics six weeks before the midterm elections. During an impromptu press conference after the formal presentation and an anodyne John Boehner Q-and-A, I asked California Congressman Kevin McCarthy what GOP challengers in winnable districts should do with the lavishly illustrated 45-page booklet
that he had just presented to the world.
Republicans Unveil 'Pledge to America'
Conservative Activists Mixed On GOP 'Pledge to America'
Since the parking lot of the Tart Lumber Company is not federal property, I expected (cynic that I am) a political answer from McCarthy, who orchestrated the development of the "Pledge to America." Instead, McCarthy recommended that Republican House candidates should take the booklet and -- drum roll, maestro -- "read it and understand it." Because, he explained, "This isn't about Republicans, Democrats, liberals or conservatives. This is about the American public."
If Republican candidates will not banner the Pledge on their websites, ballyhoo it in their campaign ads and recite from it during debates, then what was the point of this lumberyard logorrhea? By inviting comparisons with the "Contract with America" and then failing to match its ideological pizzazz, it is hard to see what the House Republicans have accomplished other than blurring the party's electoral message.
Even the "Contract with America" had limited vote-getting potency. Despite the way that shaky historical memory has created after-the-fact causation between the Contract and the 1994 GOP House takeover, the evidence suggests that the document was an after-thought for voters. A national poll
conducted in late October found that only 29 percent of registered voters had even heard of the "Contract with America."
Nan Hayworth running strongly against incumbent John Hall
in New York's suburban 19th
district is the sort of free-market conservative who would have gravitated to the bold strokes of the "Contract with America." But when I asked her in a phone interview about its 2010 edition, Hayworth said with muted enthusiasm, "The Pledge fleshes out what we've been talking about. Having a specific document is convenient as a reference point. But it isn't novel in any way unlike the 1994 Contract ."
Last weekend I was in Des Moines, Iowa, looking at the tight House race between seven-term Democratic incumbent Leonard Boswell
(who has not gotten more than 56 percent of the vote during this century) and conservative state senator Brad Zaun
. This is an election with few ambiguities -- and it is difficult to imagine that the predictable "Pledge to America" will win over wavering independent voters concerned that the Republicans have no message.
I interviewed Zaun last Saturday in Grimes as he was holding a cookout for supporters in a (do we detect a cosmic theme here?) lumberyard. Zaun's critique of the 76-year-old Boswell (who has voted for all the major Democratic agenda items, plus casting a reluctant 2008 ballot for the bank bailout) is GOP boilerplate. "He votes 98 percent of the time with Nancy Pelosi and President Obama," Zaun said. "I don't think those votes reflect what the district wants...I'm not bad-mouthing him. I respect him. It's not personal for me. I just think he's wrong on the issues."
Running from the right in the June primary, Zaun defeated the candidate (a former Iowa State wrestling coach) whom Republican leaders believed was the most electable challenger to Boswell. Zaun, a former hardware store owner, comes from the no-compromise wing of the Republican Party. When I asked him about the tension between ideological purity and victory in November, he said, "The most important thing for me is not to win and sell my soul. I'm not going to do that."
Boswell and the Democrats are building their campaign around using Zaun's words against him in 30-second TV spots. A hard-hitting Boswell ad
slams Zaun for saying that he would do "nothing" to help the biofuels industry, the source of 29,000 Iowa jobs. Another new attack ad
, paid for by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, claims that Zaun said that Iowans should show more "personal responsibility" after the devastating 2009 floods. Zaun insists that both quotes were wrenched out of context.
Like most GOP challengers, Zaun is going after the incumbent
on the economy in his ads: "Leonard Boswell claims the country is on the right path. I couldn't disagree more...The Boswell-Pelosi path leads to more spending, bigger government and more debt."
But Zaun's problem is that he is badly out-gunned financially with only $100,000 in the bank (compared to Boswell's $733,000) at the end of June. The next numbers are not likely to change that storyline. As T.J. Maloney, Zaun's campaign manager, told me, "We're not going to blow the roof off fundraising in the third quarter. It's tough to raise money." The Des Moines Register added to Zaun's predicament by reporting last month that a 2001 dispute with a former girlfriend
had produced a police report (but no legal action) alleging harassment.
Even though the momentum is moving in Boswell's direction, Democratic and Republican insiders agree that the battle in Iowa-3 remains a 50-50 toss-up race. As Boswell puts it, "This is about a full definition of what a swing district is." Whatever happens in this volatile race between now and Election Night, there is one certainty – the "Pledge to America" will have almost nothing to do with the outcome.